Is Rising Tuition Causing Liberty’s Enrollment to Stagnate?

Tuition might be cause for enrollment decline.

Back in my day, Liberty was the “world’s largest Christian university.” And then came Grand Canyon University. When Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service broke the news Liberty no longer held the self-proclaimed moniker turned marketing tool, Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. took offense.

“Our definition of a Christian university only includes universities who hire faculty who adhere to fundamental Christian doctrine. GCU does not. Liberty does,” Falwell said in a statement to RNS.

According to GCU’s website, it identifies as an inter-denominational Christian university since its founding in 1949.

Jenkins wrote extensively on the topic of Falwell’s disgust over the news, but the whole scenario begs the question: what does GCU have that has caused them to blow past Liberty in enrollment?

One of the answers? Frozen tuition.

Since 2009, yearly tuition at GCU has stayed frozen at $16,500. Meanwhile, in the same time period, Liberty’s tuition has risen from $15,992 to $23,800. All the while, GCU was the for-profit school and Liberty was the non-profit. (GCU was awarded non-profit status on July 1st.)  

Take a look at the enrollment numbers at both schools from 2009, the year tuition froze at GCU, to 2016. The most recent year enrollment data has been recorded by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 2009, GCU enrolled 53,018 students while Liberty enrolled 64,610. Fast forward eight years and GCU added 69,140 students to bring them up to 122,158 compared to the 37,341 students Liberty added in the same time frame. In other words, GCU added almost double the students Liberty did from 2009 to 2016.

In the fall of 2018, GCU boasted 20,500 residential students compared to the 1,000 it had on campus 10 years before, according to GCU.edu. That means in 10 years, GCU added more than 19,000 students residentially. On top of that, GCU’s campus was ranked No. 16 in the nation by Niche.com for 2019.

GCU is not merely a school on the rise. In terms of enrollment at Christian schools, it is on top. If Falwell cares so much about the “largest Christian university” title, why not lower tuition, or at least freeze it where it is, instead of just  talking about another school stealing LU’s thunder?

In terms of college tuition, $23,800 is still relatively affordable compared to other secular universities. The catch is, Christian universities seem to be in a market of their own. GCU and Liberty are competing for the same type of students, so the price deficit can make a big difference.

Falwell has gone to great effort to praise Liberty’s business success and the school’s billion dollar endowment, yet the cost of attendance has continued to rise. What is stopping Liberty from lowering tuition and keeping it there for the next decade?

Is Liberty not as well-off as it seems, or is the school just getting greedy? After all, if the goal is to “train champions for Christ,” then it would make sense to make the education as affordable as possible.

Yes, online tuition is different from residential tuition, but the fact remains, in the last 10 years, GCU has done much more than Liberty to make education affordable for the average freshman.

If Liberty wants its nickname back, which it does, it needs to learn a thing or two from the current largest Christian university in the world.

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